William Wilberforce, member of the English Parliament and leader of the anti-slavery forces in the British Empire, had a tremendous personal discipline that saw him through both tough times and the good times. Times when he felt like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Times when he was riding high and being considered for a cabinet position within the government headed by Prime Minister Henry Addington. He always had a weekly time of worship and solitude – a Sabbath. He comments that because of this discipline “earthly things assume their true size.”
One of the great secrets of his personal life: his commitment to weekly withdrawals from the wild scramble of public life so that he could engage in worship, connection with a small circle of friends, and quiet reflection (a conversation with himself). Reflection is an inner conversation – discourse one generates with oneself and with God. During inner conversation, your engagement with other people is suspended. There’s a time to love, to serve, to care for other people. But a time of inner conversation is personal and private.
Withdrawal for inner conversation parallels the priority flight attendants express when passengers on a plane are told that if the oxygen masks appear, they should put theirs on first before helping others. This is counterintuitive, especially for mothers, but thoroughly logical.
Writer Anthony Bloom describes his father as a man who knew inner conversation well. When he felt the need to do his own soul-work, he would sometimes tack a sign to his from door: “Don’t go to the trouble of knocking. I am at home but I will not open the door.” This is not easy for those who are extroverts or who are people pleasers. We are suckers for knocks on our front doors.
There is a sense of inner conversation in the Psalms when the writer quizzes his deeper self: “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” Or when the writer invites God’s attention: “Search me, O God, and know my heart.”
Sometimes inner conversation originates with God. You see it in the words God uses to caution Cain: “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?” You see it in the question God asks when Elijah flees to the wilderness in fear of Jezebel: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Then saying, “Slow down, sleep, eat, drink. And then tell Me again how you got here.” What follows is a fascinating inner conversation in which Elijah’s inaccurate perspective on things is repaired. Paul is probably referring to inner conversation when he speaks of his “thorn in the flesh” and his frustration with it. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away.” But God didn’t.
During his many years as a public servant, Wilberforce rarely deviated from his Sabbath commitment to this inner conversation. Wilberforce not only set aside Sundays for inner conversation, but he usually began his working day in a similar but briefer way. He would push the spiritual reset button. He would spend time sweeping out the heart. Once Wilberforce said of these occasions, “In the calmness of the morning before the mind is heated and weary by the turmoil of the day, you have a season of unusual importance for communing with God and with yourself.”
Garth Lean comments that in the “day-to-day battle it was, more and more, these early mornings… and his quiet Sundays that gave (Wilberforce) strength and perspective on himself and the world.”
Maybe we need to make a fresh commitment to slow down the pace of life a bit and reserve that daily quiet time and another longer period each week that we can truly declare is our personal Sabbath. Don’t ignore those need inner conversations.